Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Harmful algae in southern Minnesota tourist town has officials on edge

Officials in southern Minnesota are at odds about how to fund clean-up and where to place the blame for harmful algae in Fountain Lake, a popular tourist destination in Albert Lea, Minn., a town dubbed "The Land Between the Lakes," Tony Kennedy reports for the Star Tribune. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money has already been spent to clean the lake with copper sulfate, "a chemical that carried surface scum to the lake bottom, out of sight from summer tourists." (Tribune photo by Brian Peterson: sampling for pollutants)

"But a true revitalization of the civic gem and other waters in this heavily farmed region is likely to require more than cosmetic chemicals," Kennedy writes. "Southern Minnesota’s abysmal water pollution won’t go away, state officials say, unless farmers reduce the heavy use of phosphorus, nitrogen and other chemicals that seep off their fields into local rivers and lakes."

"The job of protecting Fountain Lake belongs to the Shell Rock River Watershed District, a special body with its own tax base, millions of dollars in state funding and a full-time staff," Kennedy writes. "Brett Behnke, its administrator, concedes that the volume of agriculture drainage coursing into local waterways continues to increase but vows to restore the district’s lakes and the Shell Rock River itself with a combination of new and ongoing projects."

"But state officials and some local citizens note that the watershed district, which is chaired by a major local corn grower, is spending thousands of dollars on restoration projects without addressing the region’s core problem—agricultural runoff," Kennedy writes.

"In a letter dated June 3, the agency objected to the district’s decision to make re-dredging of Fountain Lake a top priority," Kennedy writes. "The agency says it’s unclear whether removing the phosphorus-laden sediment will work in the long run if farm runoff isn’t stopped upstream. Behnke said the district is drafting a response, but Gary Pestorious, the district’s chairman, said the authority has completed the right amount of upstream work and that farming is not the problem."

Pestorious told Kennedy, “We are at a phosphorus level right now that’s less than half of what it was 15 years ago. It’s down to a point in southern Minnesota where you can barely raise a crop. If there’s someone who thinks these farmers are farming incorrectly, they’re wrong.” (Read more)

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